There is mounting evidence that people who are lonely or socially isolated may suffer a variety of negative health consequences. But with our nation’s growing number of “soloagers” — people who, by choice or circumstance, are aging alone — one of the most concerning findings is the correlation between social isolation and a 50% increase in the risk of developing dementia. A new study has found one potential solution, however, and it has four legs. That’s right: There’s striking evidence that pet ownership might reduce the risk of cognitive decline among those who are aging alone.
Pet ownership tied to fewer memory issues in soloagers
The 2023 study, conducted by researchers at the School of Public Health at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, was recently published in JAMA Neurology. Their primary query: Does pet ownership mitigate the correlation between living alone and an increased risk of cognitive decline?
The research team looked at data on 7,945 people from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA), an ongoing study of community-dwelling adults in the U.K., who are 50 or older. The ELSA began collecting data on participants in 2002, following up with them twice a year to measure changes in their health, economic, and social circumstances.
To gauge their cognitive acuity, the ELSA participants are asked to perform several tests on an annual basis. First, they are asked to repeat back 10 unrelated words immediately after they are given, as well as after a delay. They also are asked to list as many animals as they can think of in one minute. Such tests assess verbal memory and verbal fluency, both of which are critical to performing daily tasks and remaining independent as we grow older.
Specifically, the Sun Yat-sen University researchers looked at the rate of decline in cognitive skills of pet owners as compared to non-pet owners over a period of nine years. Their findings were somewhat surprising: Pet ownership was correlated with a slower rate of decline in both verbal memory and verbal fluency among individuals living alone. However, there was no discernable difference in rates of cognitive decline among pet owners who live with other people.
More and more Americans aging alone
The percentage of the U.S. population that is retirement age is growing as people have fewer children (or none at all) and people live longer. In fact, by 2030, all of the Baby Boomers will be 65 or older, and the U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2034 — in just 10 years — seniors will officially outnumber children. At that point, Americans age 65+ are expected to number 77.0 million with children under age 18 numbering 76.5 million.
As America “grays,” we may discover the implications are broader than we anticipated. Fewer young people than older people means fewer caregivers, less revenue being paid into Social Security, and more soloagers — seniors with neither a spouse/life partner nor adult children.
These Baby Boomers living alone may be divorcees or widowed; they may have lost children or never had them (by choice or not). But the end result is that they will be aging alone. In many of these cases, soloagers lack a familial support system to assist should they eventually have age-related care needs or face a health crisis. But another important issue surrounding soloaging is the prevalence of loneliness and isolation.
Cognitive decline prevention with four legs
Loneliness and isolation have reached epidemic proportions in the U.S., particularly in the fallout of the pandemic. The consequences of feeling lonely can impact people’s physical and mental health including increasing the risk for depression, stroke, heart disease, and even premature death.
Research also has shown that living alone and being isolated socially are associated with a 50% increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia as we grow older. Therefore, as the number of single-person households increases in the coming years and decades, these memory-related health issues in older adults will likely become increasingly prevalent public health challenges.
In this context, the discovery by the Sun Yat-sen University researchers that owing a pet can offset the connection between living alone and declining rates of verbal memory and verbal fluency is truly groundbreaking. But why would pet owners who live alone have less cognitive decline than soloagers without pets?
Perhaps pet owners (particularly dog owners) get more exercise and fresh air, both of which can have a multitude of health benefits. Or maybe walking a pet facilitates social interactions since you will inevitably cross paths with other people. Research has also shown that walking or playing with pets can decrease blood pressure and cortisol (a stress hormone) levels. But above all, pets provide companionship, which can help mitigate loneliness.
So, whether you’re a cat person or a dog lover, for those who are aging alone, having a furry friend may be protective against the cognitive deteriorative effects that loneliness and social isolation can have as we age. And since many senior living communities are pet-friendly, moving to a retirement community may not mean parting ways with a beloved four-legged companion!
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